The Words We Use

The Words We Use

Violence is so endemic in our society and workplaces that we rarely notice it. Nor notice its effects.

Why does it matter? Well, we humans generally feel less happy when victims of violence – however minor or unremarked. But setting aside that general point, anything that negatively impacts our state of mind has similarly negative implications for knowledge workers’ productivity and the quality of that work.

“Most of what we call management consists of making it difficult for people to get their work done.”

~ Peter Drucker

And one wildly underreported source of such difficulty is the unwitting violence that happens every day in our relationships at work.

To illustrate how unaware we can be about the violence we do to ourselves and others, you might like to consider some examples. Examples of some commonly used words which not only seem innocuous, but even carry imagined positive connotations. Even these oft-lauded words can harbour implicit violence:

Discipline (verb)

Most folks take this to mean e.g. self-discipline = forcing, compelling or otherwise obliging ourselves to do things we feel we should be doing. And disciplining others = forcing them, mainly through fear, obligation guilt, shame (FOGS), or the threat of punishment, to do the things we feel they should be doing.


Many folks take “professionalism” to mean “constrained by expectations about how something should be done”. Here again, if we but reflect a moment, we may see the violence inherent in this idea. For example, the fear of e.g. a sanction such as ridicule or shame, when one’s behaviour does not conform to that expected of a “professional”.


This notion often translates to an expectation of obligation. If we are responsible for something, then we (or others) expect us to act in certain ways. Once more, we may choose to see this as raising issues of self-violence (where we take a responsibility upon ourselves) or violence done to us (where the responsibility is conferred – explicitly or implicitly – by other people, or even by rules, policy, social mores, etc.).

We Can Choose Our Words

There are, of course, hundreds if not thousands of other words, in many languages, which carry an implication of violence. How often are we aware of those implications when choosing words, and of the consequences of such choices?

Would you be willing to share some words which you find violent, in effect?

– Bob

Further Reading

Domination Systems – Duen Hsi Yen

  1. Right on! I find myself often pausing now to edit what I’m about to say so there is (hopefully) no violence, emotional loading or room for mis-interpretation – tricky stuff, but worth it as it’s increasing the quality of my interactions.

  2. Tobias said:

    I think you are too caught up on words, and not considering intent. Apart from Professionalism (which is simply a ridiculous concept, with little meaning) there is nothing inherently violent in the words you offer. Both discipline and responsibility are values I strive for, and seek out in others. Any word or phrase can be violent, when used violently (consider sarcasm). Sure, the words we use do matter, and it is good to consider how we communicate—how we may be heard—but knowing our own intent is far more important. Words are generally part of a conversation, and conversation allows us to check out assumptions, clarify what we mean, backtrack, restate, etc. When used in monolog (directives, keynote talks! etc) the opportunity to clarify and explore is not there. Perhaps it is simply monolog that is violent, not any particular word or phrase. As Boal says of oppression” “monolog where there should be dialog”.

  3. azheglov said:

    Alignment. In my experience, more often used to mean increased centralisation and decreased optionality, the opposite of Reinertsen’s and Bungay’s (“The Art of Action”) use of the word.

    Discipline (noun). More often used to suggest using discipline as a verb than something one can study, deliberately practice and get better at.

  4. “Hold accountable”. I find violence implicit in the metaphor.

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